12th Grade: The Head and the Heart


This week we wrapped up one unit and began another.  On Tuesday the students turned in their responses from the reading of Euripides’ The Bacchae.  As I mentioned previously, the plays deals with the conflict between head and heart in governing the state.  Of course Euripides remains open to interpretation and the students had different perspectives.  The plot turns when Pentheus, the ruler of Thebes, bans the Dionysian cult from his territory.  Dionysian worship had a fundamentally irrational side, with ‘worship’ involving shrieking, wild dancing, women leaving their homes, and a general disruption of normal, rational society.  Eventually, however, his banning of the cult led to Dionysian worshipers seeking revenge, and they destroy Pentheus and his whole family.

To start our discussion I gave the students two choices:

Was Pentheus right to ban the cult, given the general disruption they wreaked upon society?  Or did his actions in fact lead to an intensification of what he most feared?  If they had been tolerated, they would have been more moderate, etc.

In other words, how much was Pentheus to blame for his own destruction?

We can relate this to other areas.

  • Did the election of Hamas vindicate Israel’s policy towards the West Bank?   Did the Palestinians show their true colors in choosing Hamas to represent them?
  • Or, did Israel create the enemy they most feared through their policies the past 10-15 years?

Those in the D.C. area know the new toll commuter lane on I-495.

  • The ‘head’ says that this lane will reduce traffic for everyone, though some of course benefit more than others.  Still, everyone benefits.
  • The heart might counter with the fact that the imbalance of benefits will cause more resentment than relief.  Those not in the pricey commuter lane will not focus on how they get home 10 minutes faster because of those that pay to drive on the special lane.  They will  focus on the fact that those richer than they get home 45 minutes faster.

So — will the toll lane primarily reduce traffic, or increase class resentment?

Some economists see the same dynamic at play in globalization.  Globalization seems to have raised the standard of living across social classes.  But a small minority experience the vast majority of the benefits.  Thus, people are not poorer, but probably feel poorer than they used to.

If true, to what degree should these realities influence our policy?

In a democracy, how do we want our representatives to act?  Do we want them to be rational calculators, because we, the electorate, cannot be?  Or do we want them to have their finger on the pulse of the nation?  This aspect of leadership goes beyond ideology.  How much of governance involves connecting on an emotional level with people?  We can think of presidents who did this very effectively, like Reagan and Clinton recently, and FDR, Lincoln, and perhaps Andrew Jackson in the past.  Internationally, Winston Churchill comes to mind.  I do not think that either Bush made or Obama now makes that connection, and it remains to be seen if a leader on either side can galvanize the electorate in our fractured political landscape.

Many thanks,

Dave Mathwin